Annual meeting of MIAs highlights challenges and opportunities facing global marine sector

The annual ICOMIA/IFBSO conference officially kicked off this morning in Split, Croatia following two days of technical committee meetings and marina tours. The three-day calendar of events, hosted by Croatian boating industry association (CBIA), opened with the Marine Industry Association experience-sharing session in which the 20 individual MIAs present reviewed current projects and particular challenges facing their respective markets. Membership engagement, new strategic planning, tackling skills shortages and becoming more proactive in raising boating and the industry’s profile among governments, were emerging themes.

Finnish association Finnboat kicked off proceedings by flagging its efforts to increase its membership engagement, especially among boat dealers, while highlighting the drive to extend its training initiatives.

Addressing employment shortages is a major challenge across the industry and for the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) forms a key component of its new strategic plan. Outlined by NMMA president Thom Dammrich, the plan has three main focuses: to re-invigorate its Discover Boating programme with increased funding; to entice new workers into the pipeline; and to expand its advocacy initiatives to drive home the wider economic impact of recreational boating.

“We’re going on offense, we’ve played a lot of defence,” said Dammrich. It was a theme picked up in the follow-up workshop session on Advocacy, chaired by the NMMA’s Nicole Vasilaros, who shared a ‘best-practice’ glimpse of the strategy in action with the NMMA re-working of its boating message to really hit home in the corridors of power. She noted the NMMA’s flagging up of the significant economic impact of recreational fishing on the US economy, as a prime example of how it was re-educating government by better targeting its message (and statistics).

“We’ve got to start changing this industry rapidly – we can’t afford to wait. We need to take action today if the industry is going to be thriving in 20 years’ time.”

New strategic plans were a common theme. Lesley Robinson at British Marine outlined the UK association’s ‘national agenda’ that will focus on growing participation and the environment; increasing skills and training; learning from other sectors to harness the best in technology and innovation; and getting proactive, rather than reactive in terms of advocacy.

Australia’s Boating Industry Association (BIA) is less than 12 months into a five-year plan that aims to recognise and embrace a changing consumer. The BIA’s Darren Vaux told delegates that evolving consumer usage trends – peer-to-peer, charter, boat clubs etc – will lead to an increase in boating participation long term, but a decline in the ratio of boats per person. “We’ll have to see a dramatic increase in participation to maintain the same level of product supply,” he maintained.

The recently created Hong Kong boating industry association reported on its growing membership base, while representatives of the Japan association JMIA, Satoru Honda and Koichiro Yoshikai, highlighted the country’s market recovery over the last five years – bringing it back to pre-2008 recession levels. The positive news was echoed by the South Korean contingent that claimed that market growth in Korea was being driven by recreational coastal fishing – the current boat park was estimated at between 50-000-60,000 boats (5m-7m) with a recent survey revealing that eight million Koreans were actively involved in recreational fishing, suggesting significant market potential. 

Smooth sailing – what do we need to worry about?

Thom Dammrich kicked off the afternoon session calling on the industry to be “change leaders, not followers”. The NMMA president highlighted the worrying trends of boaters getting older in step with declining rates of boat ownership and a lack of retention of first-time buyers and millennials. He said the industry continued to be relatively resistant to change, “but change we must if we are going to survive.”

Dammrich encouraged the industry to be less product and sales focused – to be more marketing orientated – to sell the experience of boating rather than the ownership model: “We have to focus on creating a pipeline of future customers.” Dammrich said that through its Discover Boating campaign it was a looking to educate dealers and builders in helping nurture potential buyers and though various digital and online techniques was encouraging them to shift away from the ‘boat purchase funnel’ model, that effectively concludes with the consumer purchase (according to the NMMA, 40% of first-time boaters in the US leave the sector within five years), to a ‘circular’ purchase model that continues to promote the user journey beyond initial acquisition to encourage further long-term engagement.

Dammrich called on the need for industry to make the costs of boat ownership more transparent and lamented the fact that only 15% of US boat buyers have a follow up with their dealers after they’ve taken the keys to their new vessel.

“We’ve got to start changing this industry rapidly – we can’t afford to wait. We need to take action today if the industry is going to be thriving in 20 years’ time.”

The session rounded out with a number of associations highlighting their grow boating initiatives – they included news of a Yacht Design Competition initiated by the China Boat Industry; a report on the success of a recent ‘try a boat’ event at the Helsinki boat show; and news of the success of the inaugural Start Boating event in Germany, that concluded two weeks ago and welcomed some 1,600 members of the public with 24 companies involved. Associations from Portugal, Singapore and Poland said they were looking to implement some sort of grow boating initiative within their own markets at some point.